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Why Human Rights Criticism Often Backfires

Shaming countries over human rights abuses is unavoidable. But there are better ways to do it.

By , a lecturer in politics and international relations at the University of Kent.
A person stands in front of a store with a #BOYCOTT QATAR 2022 banner. The Q is drawn with a soccer ball and a chain.
A person stands in front of a store with a #BOYCOTT QATAR 2022 banner. The Q is drawn with a soccer ball and a chain.
A protester with a #BoycottQatar banner stands in front of an Adidas store to protest against the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Berlin on Nov. 19. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

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The Qatar World Cup began in November amid a squall of criticism of the host nation. Qatari leaders have, with mixed results, fought hard against international protests and boycotts over their country’s treatment of migrant workers and LGBTQ+ people.

Earlier this year, Chinese diplomats lobbied just as furiously to prevent a United Nations debate on Beijing’s treatment of minority groups in Xinjiang. The effort paid off, with the U.N. Human Rights Council voting 19 to 17, with 11 abstentions, to reject the debate. It would have been merely a nonbinding discussion of the damning recent U.N. report on human rights abuses in Xinjiang—whose release was also subject to intense lobbying.

Both cases have raised questions over the effectiveness of publicly criticizing human rights in other countries. On the eve of the World Cup, FIFA President Gianni Infantino attacked Qatar’s detractors, saying that “hammering and criticizing … will close more doors.” Even former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, who released the Xinjiang report, said she was conflicted about this kind of “campaigning and condemning.”

The Qatar World Cup began in November amid a squall of criticism of the host nation. Qatari leaders have, with mixed results, fought hard against international protests and boycotts over their country’s treatment of migrant workers and LGBTQ+ people.

Earlier this year, Chinese diplomats lobbied just as furiously to prevent a United Nations debate on Beijing’s treatment of minority groups in Xinjiang. The effort paid off, with the U.N. Human Rights Council voting 19 to 17, with 11 abstentions, to reject the debate. It would have been merely a nonbinding discussion of the damning recent U.N. report on human rights abuses in Xinjiang—whose release was also subject to intense lobbying.

Both cases have raised questions over the effectiveness of publicly criticizing human rights in other countries. On the eve of the World Cup, FIFA President Gianni Infantino attacked Qatar’s detractors, saying that “hammering and criticizing … will close more doors.” Even former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, who released the Xinjiang report, said she was conflicted about this kind of “campaigning and condemning.”

Does criticizing countries in this way make a difference? Does it encourage Qatari or Chinese citizens to also oppose those violations? The good news is that it may—if carried out in a careful, targeted manner. The bad news is that this kind of careful criticism is rare. 

Many in the human rights community believe that “naming and shaming” countries for their violations is their best weapon. And there is plenty of evidence that “naming”—or the work that human rights organizations and journalists do to highlight those violations—is impressively effective in promoting human rights. The impact of going on to publicly shame countries over those violations, however, is less clear.

On the one hand, we can point to cases where campaigning and condemning have alerted the public that their government is violating international norms and provided crucial moral support for activists. Take Morocco in the 1990s, for example, where Amnesty International reports played a key role in galvanizing activism against the monarchy’s repression. Or Zimbabwe, where Western condemnation of Robert Mugabe’s regime—at least initially—provided real impetus for opposition rallies.

On the other, shaming may also backfire. In my new book, Hostile Forces: How the Chinese Communist Party Resists International Human Rights Pressure, I find that U.S. human rights criticism actually strengthens Chinese people’s belief that the government respects their civil liberties and reinforces their confidence that their country is democratic. In Qatar, interviews with Qataris suggest that World Cup criticism has mainly enraged local citizens at Western hostility, rather than provoked meaningful discussions around minority rights. In Israel, there is evidence that foreign shaming and sanctions increase public support for the government’s annexation of territories in the West Bank. In countries from Uganda to Iran, international campaigns for gay rights or the release of political prisoners have ended up entrenching local backing for these illiberal policies.

This is because foreign shaming risks shifting the debate around human rights violations from the local to the international. Confrontational condemnation from outside actors can easily turn discussions of individual injustices or genuine harm to vulnerable groups into us-versus-them questions of geopolitics, ideology, or religion. And governments or elites who are under pressure are happy to play into this. For Mugabe, Western criticism was quickly framed as an attempt at recolonization; for Russian religious leaders, international campaigns for gay rights are Western attacks on traditional Orthodox values.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) even enthusiastically publicizes foreign criticism of its actions at home. Western condemnation of sensitive human rights matters—portrayed in China as a hostile plot to bring the country down—has been a regular feature in state media since the 1950s. In 1959, according to the People’s Daily, the United States was “slandering, attacking, and ceaselessly provoking the Chinese people.” By 2008, according to the same publication, its politicians wanted to “relive [their] old dream of invading and dividing the country, even robbing and murdering the people.”

The dilemma for the CCP, of course, is that all this publicity ends up informing people about its human rights violations, people who might not have otherwise heard about them. Yet my research has found that it is precisely these people—the less liberally inclined, more nationalist individuals who do not normally seek out criticism in foreign media—who become more supportive of their government’s policies after hearing of those foreign denunciations. The bigger the campaigns, and the more showy or dramatic the criticism, the more likely they will be to reach these people—and to backfire.

Some analysts believe that these unintended consequences mean the international community should refrain from condemning human rights violations. Political scientist Jack Snyder, for instance, recently wrote in Foreign Affairs that “at times, human rights promoters will want to avoid shaming altogether.”

But shaming is unavoidable—even if it does backfire. When democratic politicians or leaders of human rights organizations are faced with evidence of illiberal behavior, there is simply too much political capital in the act of condemning and too much cost in staying silent.

U.S. President Joe Biden—hardly reticent in his criticism of human rights violations around the world—has been attacked by supporters and opponents alike for his failure to openly condemn U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia. Politicians, business leaders, and leaders of international organizations from the United Kingdom to South Africa have faced outcries over their silence on human rights violations abroad. And political pressure is even stronger when it comes to geopolitical rivals. For instance, China’s critics in the United States have expressed outrage not only at Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang, but also at those in the U.S. who stay silent.

Loud condemnation of human rights abuses is not going away. But the latest findings in political science show us that it can be issued much more effectively.

First, who does the shaming matters. There is now widespread evidence that countries and their publics are much more willing to accept criticism that comes from allies or neutral sources. Even in China, certain types of foreign criticism are not appropriated as government propaganda. The recent U.N. report on Xinjiang, for example, was almost completely absent on Chinese domestic media and social media platforms. Criticism coming from an organization that a country has supported and praised is much harder to frame to the public—and the wider international community—as a hostile attack.

And when a country does need to shame a rival, there is evidence it is less likely to backfire when relations between the two are relatively benign—such as during back-slapping bilateral meetings—rather than at times of tension. For example, around his state visit to China in 1998, then-U.S. President Bill Clinton’s criticism of Beijing’s human rights record was played down and hidden from the Chinese public.

Second, who is being shamed matters. China is a tough case for international criticism. CCP leaders have decades of practice using their powerful propaganda apparatus to frame condemnation of their human rights record as an attack on the country itself. We see a similar trend in countries, such as Israel and Zimbabwe, whose governments have a long history of defiance against international criticism.

Criticism is more likely to be successful in places without this entrenched narrative. A cluster of recent studies in Sweden, Brazil, and the United States found that international shaming may be effective in these places and encourage people to show more support for international norms. It helps if countries have influential opposition voices that can push back against the government’s narrative. Take South Africa under apartheid; international isolation was a powerful tool, in part because the government was not able to create a potent national or religious story of outside hostility.

Third, the reason a country is being shamed matters. Governments can combat outside narratives better on certain issues than others, especially those that concern borders or separatist regions, from Xinjiang to the West Bank. On these issues, criticism is more effective when it targets individual instances of human rights violations, rather than big-picture matters like a minority group’s right to self-determination. If the issue has not been relentlessly criticized in the past, even better.

Indeed, shaming countries over environmental issues, rather than human rights, appears to be especially effective. Researchers do not yet know why that is the case, but it may be because it is harder to frame foreign criticism as hostile when the issue clearly has a big impact on the international community. In interviews with hundreds of Chinese citizens, I found that people were quite understanding of why the United States—or anyone else—would be concerned about pollution levels in their country. Many governments have also made clear commitments to improving the environment, and there is evidence that criticism is most effective when it targets countries for not properly fulfilling their commitments.

The form of the criticism is important as well. Criticism should be tangible and specific. Factual reporting on the arrest of a peaceful women’s rights protester is much harder to frame as a geopolitical attack than the vague censure of a country for its poor record on women’s rights. And, where possible, criticism should explicitly target the people carrying out the violation—for example, a country’s military leaders—rather than the entire country.

The more boring, the better. Boring criticism—criticism that simply states the violations and how they transgress international norms—can reach the people who are looking for it: the activists, opposition supporters, and liberal citizens who are most likely to respond positively. The sensationalized moralizing that attracts widespread press coverage may be the most counterproductive. Not only does it appear more hostile, but it is also the criticism most likely to reach the very nationalist citizens who react defensively.

And here, of course, is the dilemma. Criticism is unavoidable. The political benefits of shaming other countries—and the costs of silence—are often too high to ignore.

But politically attractive criticism is the most likely to backfire. Shaming can be powerful if it is targeted, specific, boring, and aimed at allies and countries not used to facing down international pressure. The U.N. report on Xinjiang ticked many of these boxes. Its well-documented scrutiny came from an authoritative, relatively neutral source and risked turning more non-Western states against China’s policies. It is clear why the CCP would do what it could to stop the criticism and then quietly play it down at home.

Politically attractive criticism is the opposite. It is loud, broad-brush, and moralizing. It is, unfortunately, the kind of criticism we will continue to see, unless leaders put genuine change above domestic political imperatives—and the kind that is most likely to backfire.

Jamie Gruffydd-Jones is a lecturer in politics and international relations at the University of Kent. His book Hostile Forces: How the Chinese Communist Party Resists International Human Rights Pressure is out now with Oxford University Press. Twitter: @onegruffydd

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